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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

'Predator panic'

Could we be in the middle of a bit of a panic? Dateline's now weekly "To Catch a Predator" sends a certain message. Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told Reuters that we have "a complete culture of fear." Benjamin Radford, who "wrote about Megan's Laws and lawmaking in response to moral panics in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, writes in science magazine Skeptical Inquirer that "Despite relatively few instances of child predation and little hard data on topics such as Internet predators, journalists invariably suggest that the problem is extensive, and fail to put their stories in context." He adds that "the issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the measures proposed will ensure their safety…. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 'based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger'."

Radford zooms in on the constantly cited "one in five children approached by online predators" statistic from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center's 2000 online victimization study. He writes, "Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the 'sexual solicitations' came not from 'predators' or adults but from other teens. When the study examined the type of Internet 'solicitation' parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from 'one in five' to 3 percent."

I called Janis Wolak, a co-author on the 2000 study (the Center will be releasing an update next month), and asked for her view of all the stories about online predation in social-networking sites, and her response was, "Overall, there aren't that many cases that seem related to these sites, given the millions of teens on them…. Basically, what puts kids at risk is when they talk about sex with people they meet online, and the vast majority of them don't get involved in that kind of situation." These perspectives are worth parents' consideration, as are teens' views shared in the BlogSafety forum that maybe parents need to "chill" about social-networking. There's a lot of great stuff going on in MySpace and other such sites too, some of them say (though others say they find it "boring" or "too much of a popularity contest"). Certainly the picture's a lot more granular than the news media make it out to be. But what do *you* think? Email your thoughts anytime to


Anonymous Kevin Farnham said...

This is very interesting and very pertinent. If parents, teachers, and politicians are overreacting, then they are presenting themselves to teens as being an unreliable source of information.

If teens consider us unreliable on the matter of online social networking, they're not going to listen when we try to provide concrete instructions on how to use the Internet safely. They'll just tune us out entirely.

In that sense, adult panic could be a greater danger to teens than the actual predator danger, and could add to the predator danger by lessening the trust teens have for us as reliable advisors.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

I agree, Kevin. I think the potential is there - at least for our fears to be counterproductive, if not more dangerous, but this phase of the Web poses a pretty unprecedented parental challenge. If we "just say no," they can just "go underground." There aren't enough hours in a day to figure out where our kids go and monitor them every moment, much less email abuse reports and requests for account deletion to the various SN sites, *after* we've somehow discovered our kids are in a particular site.

6:39 PM  

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